Jim Jarmusch's 1999 thriller Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai is a stunning meditation on race, death, cultural cross-pollination, and Forest Whitaker killing gangsters. But what's most intriguing about Ghost Dog is how Jarmusch transforms the film's flesh-and-blood samurai into a nigh mythical wraith. Here's why this film has become a must-see classic in just twelve short years.
First off, a quick primer on the film (decade-old spoilers). Forest Whitaker stars as Ghost Dog, a bushido-obsessed, Hagakure-quoting hitman who works for Louie (John Tormey), a hapless and perpetually harried small-time mafioso. After one of Ghost Dog's hits goes awry, Louie's bosses demand that he take Ghost Dog out. This isn't easy, as A.) Ghost Dog only communicates with Louie via pigeon; and B.) is an abattoir on two legs.
At first blush, Ghost Dog lacks the qualities of speculative cinema. It draws on martial arts themes, but there's no wirework, forbidden arts, or giant flying peaches. It's an understated film; it looks like a Victorian period drama compared to other RZA-scored productions like Kill Bill and Afro Samurai. Barring Ghost Dog's anachronistic ways, his preternatural allergy to dying, and one particularly outlandish assassination, the movie guns for verisimilitude.
But what makes Ghost Dog such a fascinating film are the subtle, multifarious ways Jarmusch depicts the shadowy hitman as a living fiction. The film is a privileged look at an urban legend, a man who cloaks himself in plain sight, whose smoke screen is the American city itself.
The film goes out of its way to depict him as a phantom who slips through alleyways and the daily bureaucracy. He's all Walter Kovacs (no Bruce Wayne), an extension of the metropolis thanks to nonentityness, an inflexible moral code, and undiagnosed mental illness.
And Jarmusch doesn't simply depict Ghost Dog's phantom status based on his interactions with other characters. The film's setting, cinematography, and soundtrack all lend themselves to Jarmusch's cryptoanthropological investigation. Let's take a look at how Ghost Dog creates Whitaker's urban phantasm:
Only RZA can see you
One of the hallmarks of Ghost Dog is that he rarely talks to anybody (his pseudonym at one point is "Mr. Solo"). Those people with whom he does converse come with qualifications. His best friend is the Haitian ice cream man Raymond, who only speaks French (Ghost Dog only speaks English). He also speaks with Perline (an inquisitive but naive elementary schooler) and some doomed bear hunters. Almost all the gangsters who see his face wind up dead.
Isolation and flawed or one-sided communication define Whitaker's character. At the film's beginning, he's acknowledged by a group of young men on the street ("Ghost Dog, knowledge to knowledge, baby!"), but he ignores them. The only person he unequivocally communicates with is Ghost Dog composer and rapper RZA, who cameos as "Samurai in Camouflage."
We can read this scene a couple of ways. RZA could be a friend of Ghost Dog, but we know the assassin doesn't speak to just anyone. RZA could be a clandestine bushido practitioner like Ghost Dog (hence "Samurai in Camouflage"). We can also view this as the metatextual meeting of a fiction with his author.
Ghost Dog (the film) likely wouldn't exist if it weren't for the Wu-Tang Clan's blending of hip-hop ethos with Eastern iconography and myth (the only big stylistic precedent I can think of is The Last Dragon, and that was more DeBarge). The only one who can "see" Ghost Dog is his "maker." Is RZA the god of the Ghost Dog universe? Maybe. Ol' Dirty Bastard certainly didn't mold Ghost Dog out of a lump of clay.
Side Note 1: It's also interesting that Gary Farmer, the star of Jarmusch's 1995 surrealist Western Dead Man cameos in Ghost Dog (indeed, the gangsters mistake him for Ghost Dog). His role in Dead Man? The Indian guide "Nobody."
Side Note 2: For several years, the score to Ghost Dog wasn't available in America — you had to shell out for the enigmatic, not inexpensive Japanese version. This was absolutely maddening, as RZA composed one of the finest film scores in cinema history. Listen here.
It's never specified where Ghost Dog takes place. It was filmed in Jersey City, New Jersey (you can see the industrial sprawl of the Meadowlands from his roof). When Ghost Dog switches license plates on a stolen car, the plates read "THE INDUSTRIAL STATE" and "THE HIGHWAY STATE." There are some superficial indicators that Ghost Dog occurs in the New York metro (the Holland tunnel appears briefly), but the film could take place in any labyrinthine US metropolis. Ghost Dog could be moseying through your neighborhood.
In the film's opening sequence, Ghost Dog drives through his neighborhood in a boosted car. His environs are generic — the row houses, retail (an Asian restaurant and a store dubbed "ACTION VIDEO" abut each other), and faceless pedestrians could be from Baltimore, Los Angeles, or St. Louis. There's a netherworldly component to Ghost Dog's drive. For example, a boarded-up service station (around the 2:22 mark on the above clip) evokes the decrepit temple from Akira Kurosawa's Rashōmon.
Speaking of Kurosawa...
Rashōmon is central to the thematic structure of Ghost Dog — in the film, the hitman lends Perline his copy of Ryūnosuke Akutagawa's short story, which is about a man whose moral code endangers his own well-being. Most viewers are probably more familiar with Kurosawa's adaptation, which also borrows from Akutagawa's short story In A Grove. Kurosawa's Rashōmon focuses on the mutability of truth and the ways in which reality can become fiction. To most of the film's characters, Ghost Dog — a hulking, sullen man — might as well be a poltergeist with a katana, some real Weekly World News shit.
Ghost Dog came out over a decade ago — since then, surveillance and forensics technology have rendered the notion that a samurai hitman walks amongst us less and less plausible. But as the film's premise grows more dated and divorced from reality, the depiction of Ghost Dog as an urban legend is increasingly seductive.
In his (positive) review of Ghost Dog, Roger Ebert notes that the protagonist is too nuts, too weird for this reality. That's kind of the point. Jarmusch's suggesting that there really are Ghost Dogs are out there. They're minotaurs in the metropolis, and the rest of us are too wrapped up in our own daily nonsense to see them.